Monday, December 29, 2008

David Winogrond Interview

It's clear now that cool music has always been produced somewhere, even if the prevailing wisdom runs contrary to that statement. Pre-internet, people just had to look a bit more diligently in order to find underground sounds to their liking. For me, Homestead records provided all kinds of cool sounds in the later half of the 1980's. Live Skull, Naked Raygun, and most of all To Damascus were Homestead bands that I loved to listen to. They were all bands that expanded my listening post Metal, Punk, and Hardcore. The thing that I love most about To Damascus is their singularity. Their records are always challenging, and I admire the "take us at our own terms" vibe that Syliva Juncosa and her band mates produced. Of particular interest to me, aside from Sylvia's mind-boggling guitar ripping, was David Winogrond's drumming. Rock based, and Jazz inflected, David's drumming stood apart from the standardized, stock room playing of so many of his counterparts in Rock at that time. Towards the end of the 1990's I was pleasantly surprised to find that he'd become the drummer of choice for the great Davie Allan, who was at that time making a comeback. While David's playing was much more straight ahead within the context of the Arrows' music, it was still kick ass and exciting to me. At some point during 2008, I friended David on myspace. In keeping with the Disaster Amnesiac tendency of interviewing drummers, I asked Mr. Winogrond if he'd do and interview. He graciously consented, and then some. The man has some resume! Dig in and be astounded by a life making cool, underground sounds.

First off, some background questions. What part of the country did you grow up in?

The North Shore area, outside Chicago, till age 6. New Jersey at age 7. Moved to La Canada, California at age 8. Started playing drums at age 11. Stayed in La Canada till age 17, where I was in many bands, but nothing was released. I moved back to the Chicago area suburbs, and finally Chicago. Played in a few bands out there, Graced Lightning, and Athanor. Graced Lightning put out one single, which didn’t really represent us. We gigged a lot for over two years but none of that material was ever released. The single was with vocal, but we were primarily an all instrumental prog rock band. Athanor was a Beatles/Lennon influenced band and we put out one single. Finally moved back to L.A. and been here ever since.

I associate your playing with the L.A. area.
Has that area been your home for most of your life?
Most of the music I’ve done that’s been released is from here. Yes. Time-wise, I’ve lived here the longest.

How did you get into music? Was there music in your house growing up?

My dad bought me a record player, a lot of records, and a radio when I was around 5. I was immediately hooked! I remember going to my first day of school at age 6 and freaking out until I was put in a room with a radio, tuned to my favorite station! I had a cousin, Blanche Winogron (she dropped the “d” at the end), who was known in classical music circles for her harpsichord playing. I didn’t know her that well, but she’s probably the reason I love the instrument. I also have a cousin, Mark Winogrond, who’s exposed me to a lot of great music over the years, especially when I was younger. Both rock and jazz. His son is a rapper. Good stuff. He goes by the name of Grip Grand. I’ve only briefly met him once.

What made you get into the drums?
Was this something you did in school (i.e. band class, etc.?)
I knew I wanted to play an instrument. Tried a few things, but drums felt natural to me from the beginning. The two events that really did it for me was seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and seeing Sal Mineo in The Gene Krupa Story. I loved how Gene Krupa didn’t care about the traditional role of drums and brought them up front and did his own thing with them. I met him at some equipment show a few years before he died. Very nice guy. I briefly took one semester of band in school, but didn’t really relate to it and didn’t do well. That was for reading drum music and playing one snare drum in the orchestra. I knew I wanted to play a full set and play rock music, so I quit after the first semester. I think I got a D in the class. Outside of this, I’m completely self-taught.

How about other instruments?
Tried clarinet, piano, guitar, and violin. Was in one band briefly playing rhythm guitar shortly after starting drums. It didn’t stick and I went back to drums

What was your first drum kit?

I bought everything a few items at a time. A Sears snare drum with crappy 10” cymbal. Then I bought a much better Ludwig snare drum but turned that into a rack tom. Bought a crummy high hat. Then a 36” marching bass drum that was really loud and literally made pictures fall off the hall wall of our next door neighbors. Their hall was facing my bedroom. Some friends who also played drums would sometimes bring their sets over and I’d combine them, so I could play with a lot of toms and two kick drums. I was maybe 12 then, and had no clue what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how to set up a drum set, so I looked at pictures in Sears catalogs, which were very unhelpful, and the front cover of “Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds” for clues of how to set things up.

Did you take lessons?
Were there any teachers or experiences that inspired you greatly?
Just the one semester of band in school, which I had no interest in. No. I just listened to a lot of music. Those were my teachers, basically.

How about early listening experiences, the kind that you can still remember as being greatly inspirational?
As mentioned, I was glued to my record player since age 6. Kids would come over to ask if I wanted to go out and play baseball with them. Zero interest. I remember when stereo was a new thing and the family just got one. Prior to that, I had a mono turntable hooked up to my television. I remember getting the first Hendrix album when it first came out, before he was known in the States, and planting myself between the two stereo speakers and listening to that album. It blew me away and I called a drummer friend to tell him I had just bought the best album ever made!

Presumably, you came of age in the 1970's. What are your memories of this time in music?
That’s a big question! There were many phases in the 70’s! I liked the stuff that still vaguely sounded 60’s, some prog rock like Soft Machine and Van Der Graaf Generator, and various punk, but preferred the more melodic pop influenced punk, like The Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Ramones, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Magazine, etc.

Were you involved in Punk at all?
I was the 2nd drummer for The Germs, but never did any gigs or recordings. Pat Smear and I were on a couple of singles: The Tidalwaves, and The Martyrs. I was asked to play the last Germs gig but I was busy that night. I seem to remember it was a short notice kinda thing. I also was working on a Pat Smear solo project, but that didn’t go anywhere because he was asked to join Nirvana. I wasn’t a big fan of The Germs, which was why I quit. My only regret is that I didn’t get to play with Pat more. Pat’s a great guitar player and very cool guy.

Please give some account of your earlier musical history. What kind of bands did you play in? Any that you remember with particular fondness?
So many! (I was) always putting something together. My first gig was pretty funny! I was 12 and only had the Sears snare drum, 10” cymbal, and high hat. No kick drum yet. 7th grade talent show. Singer and lead guitar player was playing through his record player. Bass player was playing guitar, tuned down. Rhythm guitar player… well… we hadn’t decided which song to play until we were actually walking on stage! The singer said, “I’m a Man” by The Yardbirds. Unfortunately, the rhythm guitar player only heard him say “Byrds”, so he was actually playing “Mr. Tambourine Man”! Oops! And the band before us was an instrumental surf band, so the sound guy assumed we were too, and turned off the vocal mic! We kinda sucked.

My first experiences of hearing your playing came from the great band To Damascus. This band was so unique, especially in the context of 1980's music. What was it like playing in To Damascus?
Fantastic! Sylvia and Tyra were both way cool people to work with.

Was the band aware of just how different you were?

We were ALL different.

Sylvia Juncosa is, in my opinion, one of the best guitar players ever. What was your experience playing with her like? Can you give any insights into her amazing story?
Back then, she was just on fire! Writing tons of songs, which we’d learn and work out only to have her come in the next week with a new batch. But I also remember that our non-rehearsal chit chat was rarely about music. They had really well rounded interests, so they were really interesting to hang out with.

Your drumming in To Damascus has always seemed to me to be a sort of Jazz/Rock hybrid. Can you describe your approach to drumming at that time? What were some of the effects that you were after?
Jazz has always influenced me from an early age but it wasn’t really a conscious thing. I guess my approach to drumming back then isn’t that different from how it’s ever been. My approach has always been very conversational, as opposed to being the anchor. I like to “talk” to whatever the melody is. That may be in part because the kick drum was the last piece I got in my first drum set. I’m guessing on that, though. But doing the “in the pocket” thing with the bass player was something I got into later. I was always more interested in conversing with the melody, whether it be a vocal or guitar or a bunch of feedback.

It seems that To Damascus ended when Sylvia joined SWA. Is this the case?
No, she was playing in both at the same time.

Did To Damascus play with a lot of the SST/South Bay bands in live shows?
Not really. Sylvia did with SWA.

After To Damascus ended, what bands did you play in?
The band broke up after we did a U.S. and Canadian tour. I, especially, found the tour to be very disappointing. It was my first, so I didn’t know what to expect. I came back and intended to take a break from music altogether, but was immediately asked to do a Davie Allan session, which produced the song, ”Missing Link”. I was then in a band called Screaming Flesh Machine, with Tom Hofer on bass and vocal, and Bret Gutierrez (who was later the singer in Sylvia’s band for a little while) on guitar and vocal. We did some recordings, around four songs if I remember. One of those songs, one that Tom sang, ended up on an album by Tom, called “Clearing House”. Tom was in the first line up of Leaving Trains and played bass for To Damascus on much of the first album and the tour. He’s doing these really cool collages now. Not so much music. He’s getting art shows and selling his collages. Lots of stuff inspired by old match books. He also did the collage on the inside of my new album, “In The Ether”. Also, after To Damascus broke up, I bought a drum machine and started doing drum machine programming for some local rappers and other people. I did some drum machine programming for a rap version of “Surfer Joe” by Mike Love, but he ended up not releasing the album it was planned for. But mostly, the few years after To Damascus broke up, I got more seriously into photography, which I had actually been doing longer than drumming. I discovered photography around the same time I discovered music but was doing photography before I decided on an instrument. I was more focused on photography than music during this time period.

Please talk a bit more about your start with Davie Allan. What has it been like to play with someone so talented?
It started with “Missing Link”, which I mentioned earlier. It was just a session. He didn’t have a regular “Arrows” at that point. But in 1994, with the release of “Loud, Loose and Savage”, he decided to put a working Arrows together for the first time since the 60’s and I was asked to join, through Chris Ashford. Chris thought my improvisational approach would be good for Davie. The guy is an amazing talent! And what I’ve never understood is why he isn’t better known for his writing. He’s obviously a great guitar player, but he’s also a great song writer, as well.

The clips of the Arrows that are posted on YouTube are incredible.

Thanks! Have you checked Jake’s Wild Trip on YouTube? It’s in three parts. Kurt Max filmed and edited the whole thing in his back room. Very talented guy!

Are you still with the Arrows? If so, are there any new recordings in the works?

No. Basically, I got a day job that enables me to finance my psychedelic jazz recordings. The problem is, I can’t get away to do out-of-area gigs or tours. So I realized my choice would be to keep the job and work on my own thing, or quit the job and not have the money for my recording, so I can continue working with Davie. I’ve been an Arrow longer than any other Arrow, roughly 13 years, so I decided it was time to move on and work on my own thing. “Moving Right Along” finally came out this year, but it was finished in 2004, right after we finished “Restless In L.A.” (that same year) and before we did the two Christmas albums. So, at this point, everything’s been released that I played on.

The tunes on your CD “Pictures at an Existentialism” have a great, post Free, almost ECM-ish vibe.
Clearly you have a great Jazz influence and approach there. Is the group from this CD playing shows?
Interesting. The Blue Note and Impulse labels were more where I was coming from. And the look and feel of the Columbia gate fold Miles albums in the 70’s, that had an almost concept album vibe. That wasn’t really a group. Jack Chandler is the one consistent person on my CDs. He plays sax, flute, and occasional keyboards. The guy’s a freakin genius! I feel very lucky to be working with him! I have a 2nd album, “In The Ether”, coming out Feb 17. This album is also not a consistent personnel, except for Jack and myself. I didn’t see this as a drawback or compromise. I wanted the albums to be fairly eclectic, and not necessarily have the same sound or approach throughout. More like solo albums than band albums. On “Pictures at an Existentialism”, there’s one song where I had DJ Bonebrake (the drummer from X) play vibes, and Davie Allan on guitar. DJ just put out a new jazz album on the same label, Wondercap Records. “In The Ether” (which) is even more eclectic. Both (of my) albums were specifically studio projects and not intended to be representative of a live band. After finishing the two albums, I decided I needed to start doing shows and needed to put an actual band together. It’s called The David Winogrond Spacetet. As of now, it’s a fairly new band. We’ve only played three gigs so far, all at The Industrial CafĂ© and Jazz, in Culver City. It’s a very cool Ethiopian restaurant and jazz club. This band consists of Jack Chandler, Larry Rott on bass (who I worked with in the 80’s with Michael Penn in a band called Doll Congress), and Bruce Wagner on guitar and trumpet. Bruce and I have worked on many bands together, including Davie Allan and The Arrows, Skooshny, and SS-20. SS-20 was sort of a psychedelic art damage band on Greg Shaw’s Vox Records label. We started out with just Bruce on extreme fuzz bass (or occasional guitar), me on snare, floor tom and high hat, and Madeline Ridley on vocals. No other instrumentation. Very minimalist. Played gigs at punk shows or poetry readings or Greg Shaw’s Cavern club. When Greg Shaw found us, he turned us into a more conventional line-up, (guitar, bass and full drum set), but we remained very psychedelic. Bruce also appears on a few cuts on “Pictures at an Existentialism”. Skooshny, which Bruce was also in, was a band I started with Mark Breyer in 1975. We released singles on a label I started in the 70’s called Alien Records. The DIY approach of 70’s punk was influencing me, but the Graced Lightning and Athanor singles were also independently released as well, in the early 70’s. Eventually, Greg Shaw contacted us (Skooshny) to tell us our singles were collector’s items in England. He hooked us up with Bill Forsyth in London, who released our first album, which was made up of the singles and recordings I had sitting in my closet, collecting dust. Bill also released two more Skooshny albums after we decided to reform. Several years ago, the label for Jigsaw Seen, Vibro-Phonic Records, released a “best of” Skooshny album called “Zoloto”. Skooshny finally broke up, though we have one more song that’ll be released on Vibro-Phonic eventually, for a Bee Gees Tribute album. More info on Skooshny here:
Also on the site is my discography and another interview:
The David Winogrond Spacetet is my focus for now. I usually juggle several projects at once, but this is what I’m concentrating my energy on right now. That, and trying to get “Pictures at an Existentialism” and “In The Ether” some exposure.

You're an accomplished photographer. Can you talk a bit about this aspect in your life?
I mostly do people photography. Models, album covers, portfolio work, etc. Examples can be found here:
I’ve also done journalistic photography, which is completely different. (I've) worked as a staff photographer for The Palisadian Post for four years. I’ve been working with film cameras for decades, but once the quality of digital got really good, I finally moved into digital and haven’t used my film cameras in years.

What projects are you involved in as we move into 2009?
I’m excited about my new album, “In The Ether”, which is a continuation of the psychedelic jazz explorations that I started with on “Pictures at an Existentialism”, though each album is actually very different from the other. I’m also looking forward to getting The David Winogrond Spacetet more gigs and recording an album. I’d like to eventually move to Ethiopia and put a jazz band together there and occasionally tour Europe while living in Ethiopia, but that’s down the road a bit.

Post Script: David emailed me to remind me that To Damascus was on Restless, not Homestead. Totally my mistake. I seemed to recall them on Homestead, but I checked my copy of Come to Your Senses, and it is on Restless. I guess I'll blame that one on old age related memory loss. Thanks, David. He also wanted me to ad a link for the Spacetet's bass player, Larry Rott:

Ok, thanks to David for putting up with me and me gaffs!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre, by Josh Frank and Charlie Buckholtz

For years Peter Ivers has been a blurb in the RE/Search Incredibly Strange Music II mag for me, and a bit more to boot. The excellent Jello Biafra interview/rant therein includes a brief description of him, and I've always been intrigued, despite the description's mere paragraph length. I found this unexpected gem of a book about Ivers at the always astounding Oakland Public Library (Main Branch), and blazed though it during a short trip to the island of Hawaii.
Peter Iver's story is one of brilliance and tragedy. The authors use biographical writing, verbal testimonials/interviews from his numerous friends, and interviews with the LAPD Homicide Division to tell his story. It's a great way to format a biographical book, as each section never outwears it's welcome. The transitions from pure biography to interview make for compelling reading throughout. Obviously it doesn't hurt that Peter Iver's life was one of great interest: he surrounded himself with creative people, and was involved in diverse projects. If you've laughed at the folk tune scene in Airplane! or tripped out on the woman singing from within the radiator in Erasherhead, you've been exposed to Iver's work. The man decided to take the stage as the Nicks/Buckingham Fleetwood Macs' opener clad only in a diaper. He put up with Lee Ving's tough guy act as the host of New Wave Theatre. He got kudos from Muddy Waters for his harmonica playing. Frank and Buckholtz do a fine job of describing all these aspects of his life, along with his vexing inability to realize the Star Power he was so clearly deserving of. They also do an admirable job of attempting to shed light onto the tragic murder of Ivers. Although they point no fingers, they do allow those close to him and to his homicide case to give their opinions as to "whodunnit".
In Heaven Everything is Fine was a great read. If you're at all interested in the hidden aspects of Hollywood, or the charismatic and/or quirky historical figures found there, you'll surely enjoy reading it. I bet you'll also be saddened by the senseless death of such a great character. I wonder if the truth will ever be told.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cometbus #51-The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah

If there is one thing that I can say with certainty, it is that I love the San Francisco Bay Area. This place is my home, and I hope to stay here for as long as possible. To whit, I've lived in Newark, Fremont, San Francisco, Union City, and Oakland. I've driven trucks all over this area, and am familiar with many of the smaller towns and neighborhoods here.
The depth of my knowledge of the Bay Area pales in comparison to that of Aaron Cometbus. Aaron grew up in Berkeley, and has been putting out the amazing zine Cometbus for years. Cometbus routinely focuses on the East Bay region, and I consider Aaron's writing pretty essential to an understanding of the East Bay. Aaron doesn't pay too much heed to the surface aspects, but instead hones in on the "smaller" aspects, the environments and people that make up the landscape at street level.
Issue #51 of Cometbus focuses on the lives and exploits of Morris "Moe" Moskowitz and various other men and women who made up a small community of book sellers on Telegraph Avenue, near the UC Berkeley campus. Told in his signature conversational style, #51 recounts the amazing history of this small group of cranks, oddballs and business men. Aaron spoke with a lot of the key players that made up the odd mixture of Telegraph during it's height, say 1956 to 1997 or so. The story is spiced with the intrigue of their power struggles, leavened by the truly odd personalities involved, and given heart by Aaron's often melancholic musings upon the passage of time and life. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time hanging out in that area, I was fascinated to read the stories of the men and women who ran the shops, owned the buildings that the shops were in, and just generally helped to shape the tensions that ran through that area like a live wire. It certainly helped me to understand that strange corridor a bit more. Next time I'm there I know there will be a much richer humus from which to draw insight.
Beautifully illustrated with stencils by Caroline Paquita, and sold for a bargain price of $3.00, Cometbus #51 is highly recommendable reading. Seek it out, as you will not be disappointed, even if you've never been to Berkeley. The story transcends mere setting, as all great stories do.

Monday, December 8, 2008

David Hurley Interview

It started with an advertisement for Porter Records in an issue of Waxpoetics. Along with recordings by older greats like Byard Lancaster and Rashid Ali, Porter advertised a CD by drummer David Hurley. I was intrigued and ordered a copy. I'm glad I did, as Outer Nebula Inner Nebula is a really cool CD, full of great, percussive improvised group music and spacey solo pieces by Hurley. It's a fun listen. I really enjoy the way Hurley plays within an improvising group, and wanted to ask him a few questions about his influences, his processes, and what his plans for the near future are. Thankfully, he agreed to do a short interview. Read on and be inspired!

You are based in San Diego. Is this the area that you grew up in?

Yes! Born and raised and at the moment based in SD.

What were some of your formative musical experiences?

Having the chance to see Ornette Coleman still bring it at age 78… He really impressed me.
As a musician I’d have to say playing (sax and traps) on the streets or “busking” if you will… I can honestly say this has made me a stronger and more conscious musician. Playing down town on the busy street corner, I find myself in a position where I’m able to freely bounce ideas off an unsuspecting audience, which naturally reflects consistent honest (sometimes too honest) feedback. After doing this for a few years I’ve found it has greatly helped me as a creative improviser to be comfortable and confident improvising freely while keeping the ball rolling and thus keeping things interesting. You start to be aware of things like attention spans as you play off of your audience… When you have one. The club situation offers this but not nearly as raw and intense as the streets. It’s much easier to consciously or subconsciously disconnect yourself from the audience on stage and in the comfort of a venue.
I get formative musical experiences off youtube all the time.
Most recently I had the opportunity to record and play music with Elliott Levin. It was an amazing experience thanks to Luke at Porter Records. To be connected by some thin branch in the same jazz family tree as Cecil Taylor and so many other great players is an indescribable feeling.

On Outer Nebula Inner Nebula you play horns, flutes, and keys along with percussion. Did you play in school bands, church bands, etc? How
about teenage years? Did you play in Punk or garage bands?

Never played in school “band” bands. I started playing drums in a punk band at age 16 in high school. Punk is and always will be at my roots. The interest in other instruments came partially natural. I try to think in melody and colors with rhythms. I do remember someone explaining to me early on that if I wanted to be a great drummer I should learn other instruments. I took that to heart.

You also play a lot of percussion from various parts of the world. Have you played in any kind of ensembles, e.g. a Gamelan or Taiko group?

I wish!!! The closest Gamelan ensemble I know of is at UCLA. I’ve always wanted look into it. My Gamelan instrumentation came about with a good run on ebay with some pot-gongs and hours of youtubing/listening to Balinese Gamelan and Ketjak. I obsessively listen to world music for inspiration. Just recently I spent some time in Cuba studying conga drums.

Did you take trap lessons? Any teachers/elders that had a great effect on you in your personal life?

I didn’t take lessons for the traps. I often wish I did… About the time I discovered Elvin Jones’s magical drumming I was really into Fugazi’s drummer Brendan Canty and music of that genre. Elvin stumped me. I knew if I just listened hard enough I’d understand. That’s how Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, and Christian Vander worked their way into my head. Not to mention a huge appreciation for all of their music.

You dedicate Outer Nebula Inner Nebula to Elvin Jones. Clearly you have a high amount of reverence for him and his music. Can you talk about this, or any other great musicians from history that
inspire you?

Well, Elvin has this enormous heart and soul that emanates from his drumming. He is one of the most honest drummers I have ever heard. You can actually hear him feel the music and lift it up on his shoulders. He was a reflection of Coltrane and vice versa which made him even stronger during the time of that synergy. He completely absorbed the moment! Other great drummers are takers of the moment like Tony (who I love). Tony was a lot of flash and talent. But I always come back to Elvin. Christian Vander is just straight up entertaining… Elvin on acid and steroids . I love the way Christian looks with his iced over eyes rolled up in his head behind his Gretsch bebop spaceship… A huge inspiration!

Were improvised music or Jazz styles that you heard in your house as a child?

No! My mom did listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson when she was my age. Sadly her LPs were long gone by the time she had me. Jazz and Improvised music came much later.

The ensembles on Outer Nebula Inner Nebula feature a lot of percussion and not too much of the more traditional instrumentation. What were some of the factors that lead you to organize groups like this?

I wanted a sense of balance between the sounds and instrumentation. Percussion is a given, however, I specifically chose the djimbe and djun djun to provide the high highs and low lows so the alto and the drums (two mid range instruments) could weave in and out freely and comfortably. It takes a lot of consideration to make a group or ensemble really work. Also I’m fortunate to make music with such talented musicians.

Can you talk a bit about the members of the ensembles on Outer Nebula Inner Nebula? Are these men all part of and improvised music scene in the San Diego area? Do you play in any of their groups?

Leonard Mack and I are cousins and grew up together. The funny thing is we both found the drums independently of each other. He is a member of a folkloric African drum and dance ensemble with Ousmane Toure. The Nebula sessions are only the second time we had played together. I felt an intense visceral/familial connection to his drumming, which I feel came across nicely on the album. Preston Swirnoff is a close friend and multi-talented producer of dub, psych and experimental music. We have worked on several projects together over the years. Most notably Seesaw Ensemble and Habitat Sound System. Brian Ellis is one of my musical heroes. He makes anything he picks up sound good. I don’t think he had that violin more than a week before he recorded solar wind drone. He is the lead guitarist in ASTRA, a psychedelic neo-prog group I am honored to be a part of. Google or youtube him… He’s making an impressive mark. Zuri Waters is foremost an artist and was my faithful street companion and horn player in Seesaw Ensemble. Needless to say we know how to listen to each other very well in an improvised situation. He’s now studying art at RISD.

One of the things that I love about the CD is the way in which you leave lots of space in your playing. Can you talk a bit about your approach to percussion/trap set playing within an improvising group?

If you can listen harder than you are playing you can count on being in a good place to make music interesting.
Studying congas has given me a new sensitivity to the traps. Sometimes I’d rather be playing them with my hands (sometimes I do). On the album the drums almost gel like some sort of swinging language at the best moments, which created a more African vibe than a jazz vibe. I kept from riding the cymbals too much which also helped the drum set become more African.

Outer Nebula Inner Nebula features four tracks that are solo pieces. How do you go about with this process?

Hard to say… Cosmic Moon March was actually the first song I recorded for the album and coincidentally the first thing I ever recorded with my computer in my living room all by lonesome. Funny how it’s also one of my favorite songs on the album. When I was researching mics and preamps I wanted to have just enough to make a “Van Gelder” style recording using dynamic mic and focusing on placement to absorb the room sounds. I haven’t quite mastered this yet!!! With the tracked songs I approached the music as if it were improvised. Making a simple rhythm or bass line, which inspired the next rhythm or sound and eventually it would take shape and I’d know where it was going and how I wanted it to get there. I have a house full of collected musical instruments from all over at my disposal. Sometimes I just set them all up and try to find the best combinations of sounds and rhythm.

The track Solar Wind Drone is quite intriguing to me. It's under a minute long, but there sounds like so much is going on within it. If you'd like to, please describe the process of composing/recording this amazing piece.

Ha, it actually was part (the very end) of a much longer piece, which I liked very much. My computer farted and most of the songs tracks were lost in a spit second. When the album was nearly finished I had this thought of using some of Ellis’s violin and my moog from the remaining tracks and thus Solar Wind Drone was reincarnated… This time as a forty second vamp. It works in so many ways in contrast with the rest of the album and with the order of the songs as a bridge from one style of recording to another. I’m glad you like it.

What kind of drum set did you use on Outer Nebula Inner Nebula? How about cymbals?

It was custom made for me by Hard Bop Drums out of Arizona. My graduation present to myself. I use Zildjan K Constantinople hi-hat and ride cymbals and a Meinl Jazz ride.

Do you have a favorite non-trap set instrument?

Congas are my first love lately. I’ve also been giving the cuica and flute a lot of attention.

Do you have any plans to tour in the near future? It would be great to hear you at the Elbow Room in S.F. or 21 Grand in Oakland!

I don’t have any solid dates at the moment; however, sometime in May I’ll be in SF with Khan Jamal and Byard Lancaster and members of Seesaw Ensemble for a Porter Records tour. I should be headed your way with ASTRA soon as well. It would likely be in February or March. My most recent project is an all percussion ensemble. It’s taking shape quite nicely at the moment. We ought to make something happen in SF soon. Until then, Cheers.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

David Hurley-Outer Nebula Inner Nebula

avant-garde- n. A group active in the invention and application of
new techniques...esp. in the arts

Using the given definition, it would be really hard, almost impossible, to consider any music currently produced as avant-garde. I'm not trying to by cynical here, just trying to come to some sort of definition of the music played on David Hurley's great CD, Outer Nebula Inner Nebula. Let's go with Creative Improvised Music.
Hurley is a San Diego based drummer/composer whom I found about in the great Waxpoetics magazine. On this CD, which seems to be dedicated to Elvin Jones, Hurley leads quartets, trios, and duo's through six tunes, augmented by four more solo multi-tracked ones. The former for the most part sound improvised, and are characterized by their heavy emphasis on percussion. Hurley generally augments his drumming with djembe and junjun, played by Leonard Mack II and Ousmane Traore. This percussion heavy approach gives the ensemble tunes a great AACM or Sun Ra Arkestra feel, with lots of clicking, chirping, chiming and bubbling sounds surrounding the alto saxophone soloing of Zuri Waters. Waters takes good advantage of his often lone melodic role within the ensembles, soloing in free form interaction with the percussive bed around his sounds. His solo on Inner Nebula is particularly great; at one point I swear I hear him quoting Aaron Copeland! On Deep Giant squid he takes a slower, more contemplative approach for a while before launching off into the depths of the tune, interacting with the spacey-as hell organ bleeping of Preston Swirnoff. His tone throughout the disc is raw, kind of like Sonny Simmons or Archie Shepp. Hurley's trap set drumming on the cuts with other players in pretty remarkable. Even during his most heated interactive moments, he has a great sense of space, as in leave some for everyone else. Oftentimes it seems like free drummers take all of the freedom and none of the discipline, either groove-wise or ensemble-wise. David's drumming never comes across as overbearing. One gets a sense that he's really listening to his band mates. On the solo pieces, the listener is treated to more contemplative soundscapes, often reminiscent of John Cage's percussion pieces. Hurley is particularly effective with the brushes on Shake the Noise Maker as he explores quiet sounds on his expertly tuned kit. Here is where the Elvin influence really comes across (see the track Who Does She Hope to Be? on Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages for comparison). Cosmic Moon March ups the tempo a bit, with groovy Moog and balaphon playing making it sound like the music in the club in which Sun Ra took up residence after leaving this planet. David drops the drums entirely for the fifty second long Solar Wind Dance, a weird duet with violinist Brian Ellis. The song's strange ambiance is disturbing, all the more effective for it's brevity.
In terms of production, Inner Nebula Outer Nebula is quite strong . Hurley wisely keeps tunes on the shorter side of the spectrum, thereby avoiding one major pitfall encountered in improvised recordings: the CD length track. This wise editing allows the listener to move through the different spaces presented by his various combos, getting the full effect and not having to put up with the inevitable filler that occurs within group improvisations at just about any level. The sound is warm, with great separation between the various instruments; even the "little sounds" of shakers and bells come across well in the mix.
Inner Nebula Outer Nebula is a great example of creative, improvised music. At this point, so many years after the initial forays of the Jazz Avant-Garde, I hesitate to give it that description. I can unhesitatingly call if cool, fun, creative, funky, spacey, and ass-kicking. If you dig any of those factors in your ears, you could do a hell of a lot worse.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Led Zeppelin-Presence

What irks me about the Classic Rock radio format is not so much the bands, but the programming format. The same fifty or so songs by about thirty bands have been in endless rotation for decades now, helping to clog listeners' perceptions about so many aspects of music. I suspect it has a lot to do with royalty rates and point systems, but could be wrong. If anyone ever reads this, and can explain it clearly, by all means explain it to me. That said, at this point the well of sounds from which a careful DJ could draw, in terms of the "Classic Rock" sound, is pretty much endless, what with just about every recording ever produced easily available on the booming reissue market.
Led Zeppelin are by no means an obscure band, even nearly thirty years after their demise. They are often slagged off as classic Rock radio dinosaurs. Punkers like Joe Strummer spit at 'em. Post Punks like Elvis Costello derided 'em with spiteful condescension. Despite their lowly standing with so many of the Official Arbiters Of Taste, Zep's music remains not only a huge monetary source for the music industry (ever notice how often their catalog gets trotted out during dry spells?), but it still sounds really great. I'll grant (no pun intended) that I and II are pretty tuneless and dull, but move past those two in their catalog, and you'll find a wealth of great songs, played with imagination and verve.
Presence, the penultimate document of Zeppelin as an active band, is often seen as their one dud. Why this is, I'll never understand, as for me it's one of their best. Recorded quickly in order to make way for the Rolling Stones, the record has for the most part a raw, simplified sound. By this point in their career, these guys could have sounded tight as a kazoo or washboard ensemble, never mind as a Rock rhythm section.
The album is bookended by two longer tunes, Achilles Last Stand and Tea for One. The former is a great, almost purely Metal tune. My only complaint about it is that it could have been edited down to even greater effect, as Bonham's blasting speed shuffle and Page's cutting riffs are both really heavy. I'd venture to guess that they figured on writing at least one new Big Anthem for their concert repertoire, and Achilles was molded as such. It features as the one constant on said Classic Rock formats from Presence. Tea for One can be seen as pretty much standard Led Zeppelin blues, of course, but it's intro is equal to any riff from the Touch & Go post-Hardcore scene, and it's raunchy guitar playing is great throughout. Dig on Bonham's ride cymbal, too. The rest of the record is made up of shorter tunes that often sound as if the band is trying to fuse Funk and Rockabilly. These songs all feature Bonham as his tightest and most funkified. The paradox of infinite complexity residing within the seeming simplicity of his drumming remains compelling, and the listener will find fine examples of this on all tunes here. His drums were recorded great, too, as usual, beautifully up-front in the mix. Listen to Royal Orleans and try not to be moved by 'em! Page brings the Rockabilly aspect to Presence. His tones are gritty and countrified on tunes like Candy Store Rock and Hots for Nowhere, and most of his solos on the shorter tunes feature at least one instance of whammy bar bliss, as opposed to Guitar Hero pomp. He sounds a lot closer to Carl Perkins and Link Wray than Richie Blackmore or Jimi Hendrix. John Paul Jones adds to the overall feel by subtraction, in this case subtracting the keyboards entirely. He sticks to fundamental bass playing, with his axe pretty much welded to Bonham's big bass drum. His presence is pretty unobtrusive, which I'm sure at least made Page happy. Robert Plant's performance is the biggest surprise on Presence. Eschewing the "golden God" pose, Plant for the most part tones his sometimes histrionic style down, and the vocals' deep placement in the mix helps this process. You can hear the pure Rock-n-Roll approach of some of his 1980's recordings emerge here, along with a new found humour: at one point during For Your Life he makes audible pig grunts! Acts like that, along with a great name check of Barry White during Royal Orleans, seem to show Plant coming to some new way of approaching his method, perhaps willfully shedding the "Percy" persona of earlier years? Maybe the pain of his recent car wrecks and his having to record sitting in a wheelchair had him reevaluating things.
Led Zeppelin always had a raw, immediate feel in their music, especially compared to many of their contemporaries. I've never understood why they were singled out for derision amongst many of the revolutionaries that followed in their wake. Presence is perhaps the best recorded example of this rawness. The fact that they are a big part of the dull Classic Rock Radio cavalcade can't change how great and funky most of the tunes on this record are. If some of the shorter ones got a bit more airplay inside that vacuum, maybe more folks would see Presence for the cool document that it is.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rufus Harley-Re-Creation of the Gods

One of my favorite memories from going to live shows is set at the Wilson Center, WDC, in early 1989. Fugazi was playing, and at one point, their sound took on the characteristics of bagpipes. I swear, Ian and Guys' guitars made the band sound much more like a Scottish tattoo than a Post Punk band. I made a mental note right then and there to check out some bagpipe music, and on occasion have actually done so. It's a great sound, wry and melodic to my ears. I love it.
Rufus Harley loved the bagpipes, too. A long-time resident of Philadelphia, Harley may be the only Jazz bagpipe virtuoso in history. Aside from Albert Ayler's trippy tune Masonic Inborn, I can't recall any other examples of the bagpipes being used in Jazz. He made records for Atlantic during the 1960's, but seems to have been consigned to the fringes of Jazz history. It doesn't seem right that such creativity and invention (I mean, come on, JAZZ BAGPIPES?), could be shunted aside, but thankfully the great Transparency label has recently re-issued Re-Creation of the Gods, Rufus's 1972 offering.
Re-Creation of the Gods is a solid, soulful record. Harley leads a rhythm section made up of organ, electric bass, and drums through six hard boppin' tunes. There's a great "Soul Jazz" feel throughout the entire proceedings, in no small measure due to the funky organ playing of Bill Mason. Mason's playing is at times smooth and supportive, at times overdriven and heavy a la Larry Young's Lifetime wailing, but always right on point and in the pocket. His solos are great, too, full of wild abstraction, as on the amazing tunes The Crack (about the Liberty Bell, according to the liner notes) and Etymology. The rhythm section of Larry Langston on drums and Larry Randolph on bass provides tight support for Harley and Masons' solo flights. Their grooves are funky in a post 1970's Jazz Fusion sort of way. Randolph's bass playing on many of the tunes sticks to fundamentals, but on ones like Hypothesis he flows with crazy walking playing that sounds simultaneously relaxed and frantic. His tone is all butter, too. Langston's drumming is by turns jazzy or funky, according to the needs of the rest of the rhythm section. On The Crack and Malika he struts with a real New Orleans sounding high hat and snare drum fueled backbeat, real syncopated sass, almost Bonham-like on the latter cut. That he can turn around and blast out heavy-assed Jazz Fusion drumming on Etymology and Hypothesis, rolling and tumbling off of his ride cymbal and tom toms, is just beautiful. I wonder if he still plays. Harley augments his bagpipe soloing with the electric soprano sax, and with both instruments he solos wonderfully, hitting Coltrane or Lateef style multi-phonic spaces with the former and gruff Roland Kirk type tones and bellows with the later. Despite his exploring, he always has interesting melodic ideas, and never sounds boring on his axes.
Sound wise, Re-Creation of the Gods has a nice, raw feel to it. It's not too slickly produced, and the occasional lapses in Harley's intonation give it a real live feel. The band sounds loose and authentic, sometimes reminding me more of the blues groups led by Junior Kimborough and R.L. Burnside. It features a nice, even mix of all instruments, which is warm and inviting to the ears. The liner notes for Transparency's re-issue feature mystical/spiritual tones, making me wonder if Harley spent any time at Sun Ra's band house in Philadelphia, which I believe would have been there by 1972.
The bagpipes are by no means a commonly used instrument here in America. One might hear them at Fraternal Order of Police/Firefighter funerals, and there used to be a guy who'd sometimes play on Market St. in San Francisco, but for the most they seem pretty rare. In Rufus Harley we have a great example of American Jazz "eccentricity", a musician making highly personal and creative statements by thinking outside of the realms of established canon. I wish I could have seen him at the Wilson Center that night, too.

AH Kraken, 11/21/08, a warehouse in Oakland, CA

After dining on some great homemade paella at his house, Colin and I hightailed it down to San Pablo Ave. to catch AH Kraken in a warehouse. Scott met us there. The band was starting their set right as we walked in. It was so great to feel their assault up close and personal. All of the elements that make their records great were there: simple guitar riffs, sludgy bass, pounded floor tom pulse. To stand at arm's length from it all felt great. They were somewhat hampered by bad equipment and tons of booze intake (the drummer told me at the merch table that they'd been drinking since 3PM!), but still managed to put on a great, heavy performance. I love the chaotic punky sound that they generate, and they seem like good guys. If you get a chance, go and see 'em live. They seem like a pretty real deal to me.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A thought re: Chinese Democracy

I logged-on to myspace today, and was kind of bombarded by hype about the impending release of the new record by Guns 'n Roses, Chinese Democracy. I just want to ask, who cares about this stuff? Does anybody? According to the band's myspace page, they've had over one million plays, so maybe the question is just rhetorical. Still, it's been sixteen years since their last record. It seems to me that their kind of music is marketed towards younger demographics. People who were "youth" when their last record came out are no longer young, at least age wise. Is Axl Rose counting on the current crop of teenagers to purchase his new offering? Can he depend on middle aged and thirty somethings for their hard earned cash, even in what seems to be a recession, after the d.i.y. movement? I guess we'll find out. I have a feeling I'll be listening to Celtic Frost or something, at least in order to fulfill any possible Metal jones.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Doug Snyder and Bob Thomspson- The Rules of Play

Over the last few months, I've become a big fan of the magazine Waxpoetics. Thanks to my pal Max Sidman, who suggested I check out the magazine and it's amazing contents, I've been reconnecting to several musical styles and approaches that I'd become unnecessarily jaded about. Along with it's amazingly detailed coverage of of all things Funk, Hip Hop, Jazz, Dub, and Fusion, Waxpoetics sometimes features a column entitled Left Field Americana, in which writers describe strange recordings that they've unearthed during their record digging expeditions. It's a great column, and I'm continually inspired by the descriptions of obscure records and unknown musicians that it features. Of course, being an obsessive compulsive geek myself, I find it necessary to try and find and hear as many of the strange gems LFA describes as possible; this has proven to be quite a challenge, as these records are seriously rare. It kind of makes me want to move to NYC, or Amsterdam!
One featured group that I have been able to find recordings by is the duo of Doug Snyder and Bob Thompson, whose early 1970's LP Daily Dance was given serious props in one LFA column. Said column's description of it as something like Fushitsusha recorded in the 1970's was enough to make me squirm in my office chair, mouse clicking like a fiend in order to find a copy somewhere. Daily Dance is one rare motherfucker, but, happily for my ears, Snyder and Thompson's more recent The Rules of Play is much more easily accessed, and it's great, too.
The Rules of Play is made up of three tracks, starting out with the 45 minute long title song. The duo start out playing a simple call and response phrase between guitar and drums, and within a minute and a half launch into the meat of the piece. There are plenty of exchanges, plenty of changes that take place within Rules of Play. As with other long improv pieces, it seems to work best when close attention is payed to the rhythmic interplay of the players and the melodic invention that arises from it. The pace is at times relaxed and at times more frenetic as the players wind their way down the tune's long path. Snyder uses looping devices to set up drone figures, and then both he and Thompson go balls-out or blissed out over the top of them. The guitar has kind of a "processed" sound, but the soloing is of a gritty enough nature as to keep from floating away from earth entirely. Doug plays really well in response to the calls of his duo partner throughout. The drumming is kind of Rock, kind of Free Jazz, and always highly rhytmic and inventive. Thompson never falls into the "deep listening" trap that plagues a lot of Fusion drummers, instead opting to sound like Rashid Ali or Elvin Jones if they'd been sitting in with King Crimson. Bob mixes things up between the drums and cymbals with great balance, too.
The remainder of the recording is comprised of two pieces, They Would Not Be Turned Away and The Inertia of Youth. Both feature Snyder on organ along with the percussion of Thompson. Both tunes are played in the same contemplative/improvised manner as the title track. Thompson's s drumming sets up center stage, really a lead instrument playing over top the melodic beds set up by Snyder. He taps, crashes and rolls around nicely. These two remind me a lot of the Terry Riley/John Cale collaboration that was released in the 1970's. It has the same drone-ey/psyche feel as that one.
The Rules of Play works really well for me as early morning listening, but I can see how it would be fine as late late night chill/fright soundtrack, too. I find it inspiring and hopeful that there are musicians out there with this kind of approach. My America is peopled with folks like Snyder and Thompson, making joyous or rowdy noise just for the hell of it, documenting it just in case anyone else cares, but not caring too much if they don't. If anyone out there in cyberspace reads this blog, and has a copy of Doug Snyder and Bob Thompson's debut LP, please contact me. I'd love to get a copy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jambang and the Taylor Texas Corrugators, November 14, 2008, Blake's in Berkeley

Continuing their year long road trip, Greg Ginn and his pals rolled into Berkeley on an unseasonably warm evening, setting up shop in the basement of Blake's on Telegraph. Scott and I followed suit, foregoing a chance to see Gang Gang Dance over in S.F.
Although the format of the show was exactly the same as that of their July appearance, there were differences in the sound(s). To start with, bassist Cliff Samuels is no longer with the group(s). Greg has taken over the bass chores within the Corrugators, and their sound has changed pretty substantially. As opposed to their earlier sound, which was very heavily guided by Samuel's Can-like playing, Ginn's bass lines are much bluesy-er. Greg also seems to like leaving tons of space between his notes, giving the Corrugators a somewhat easier overall flow. Steve DeLollis's drumming has benefited profoundly from this year's heavy SST approach to touring. His touch was sweeter in Jazz sense, his swing reminding me at times of the great Kevin Carnes, master drummer for S.F.'s Broun Fellinis. His approach in the Corrugators is now much funkier. Lastly, Bobby Bancalari has had to assume the sole conventional melodic spot within the band. His mandolin playing was just beautiful, at times hitting Garcia-like heights within the improv Rock of the band. His sound gives them their Jam Band stamp, and if you're inclined to enjoy that approach, you'll probably dig hearing his flights of fancy.
After a short break, during which the band essentially acted as their own road crew, setting up the video monitors for Jambang's multimedia aspect, Greg strapped on his guitar and led his new fave project through their set of synced-up-to-samples sounds. Obviously the lack of live bass has somewhat of a detrimental effect on the overall Rock bottom end of Jambang's spectrum; their new approach allows for the listener to be really transported by the extreme high end tones that they generate. Towards the end of their set, during which I believe to be the song The Big Bang, Jambang achieved really psychedelic lift-off, with guitar and mandolin locking in tight with Steve's motorik drumming, all three elements delivering an amazing, minutes long locked groove. It was awesome, and had me pinned to a wall, eyes closed and mentally tripping. That's what Jam bands are good for, right?
I guess Jambang and the Taylor Texas Corrugators will be heading back to the Lone Star State soon, hopefully in order to take stock and do some new recordings. Greg Ginn remains an innovative and creative musician, and I'm happy that I was able to hear him live again. Gang Gang Dance will have to wait. I probably wouldn't have been wearing the correct pants for that show, anyway.
Thanks Scott and Melissa, who both asked, "what happened to your blog?"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Further proof, as if it's even needed

Summer 1966:
Talk, Talk
You're Gonna Miss Me
96 Tears
Psychotic Reaction
All on the airwaves. The fact that none of these groups were accepted and recognized, save for a small cult of folks who really enjoy music, is just further proof of how lame the music industry really is. There really ought to be a celebratory memorial erected at the spot on which Bill Graham's helicopter went down. Bah.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Watt takes the day!

It' s only fitting that on a day in which I received several mp3's of the Chastity Twins from the esteemed Mr. Row, my mail box should also contain a copy of the Mike Watt E.P. by the Widow Babies. This Long Beach group, who appear to be part of the very fertile and fucking interesting scene that has sprung up in and around L.A., have put out a thirteen minute concept record, starring Mr. Watt. It's a chronicle of his battles against a vampiric Abe Lincoln, who steals Watts hands, thus preventing him from sharing his music with his Pedro pals and anyone else who cares to listen. Of course, Watt prevails in the end.

And the Widow Babies' sound? Oh, yeah! Guitarist Danny Miller has an obvious D. Boon appreciation, and goes for that clean, jangled strum of Boon's, his attack strong and scattering. The rhythm section, comprised of drummer Tabor Allen and bassist Neal Marquez, does a fine job of moving the frenetic tunes along, stopping and starting, rolling and tumbling. Allen is particularly great, his style reminiscent of Hurley's later work with Vida. For all I know Allen could have taken lessons from Hurley. Whatever he's doing, it's working! Marquez lays back inside the tunes a bit more that Watt would, which is probably a good call on his part. No need to go get all ironical. Elise McCutchen's vocals are of the higher register "Punk Chick" type, sassy, I guess, but they work well within the context of the band's amped up sound. One might compare her style to Kathleen Hanna's, which makes sense, but I'd throw in Chris Thompson's name as well. Her lyrics are a lot more abstract and a lot less polemical than Hanna's, which suits me fine. But then again I was outed as a redneck on Saturday night, so feel free to ignore my opinion, as it clearly rests with the patriarchy.

All in all, the Mike Watt E.P. is a really exciting, fast paced blast of a record. I haven't felt this turned on by a Punk record since the first Skull Control e.p. blew my mind in 1999. It has energy and immediacy, but does not lack for musical ideas and creativity. The future is in damn good hands with the likes of the Widow Babies.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mike Watt and the Secondmen-The Secondman's Middle Stand

It's obviously safe to say that Mike Watt's reputation and name are sterling. As the years roll along, he becomes more and more a figurehead within Post-Punk Rock circles. Watt, the man who makes it o.k. to play second-string to guitar with the bass. Watt, the man in the van, still econo after all these years. Watt, paragon of d.i.y. culture. I'm not knocking him one bit ever. The man and his music will always warrant great attention from Disaster Amnesiac. Watt is a musician's musician, and as such it's safe to say that his sounds deserves hearing, listening, and appreciation. The Secondman's Middle Stand has been getting a lot of play on my CD player of late. Perhaps I can convince any else reading this blog to give it a fresh listen.
The Secondmen on this recording are made up of Watt on bass, Pete Mazich on organ, and Jerry Trebotic on the drums. The group is augmented at times with vocals by Petra Haden.
This all- San Pedro band exhibits all of the cleverness and movement that one can expect from SST musicians in general and Watt projects in particular.
The bass and it's position within band hierarchy obviously been an constant with Mike Watt. His playing has never assumed the strictly supportive role with which the bass spot in a band has often been saddled. That's not to say that Watt's playing suffers from some kind of bass inferiority complex. It seems to me that he loves the bass, loves it's tones and timbres. On The Secondman's Middle Stand, bass is often the featured lead voice. The way in which Mike amps his sound is great: big, fuzzed-out tones feature prominently. Thankfully, he avoids the dorky "more is more" chops-heavy approach that many bass players utilize for lead voice leverage. Instead, Watt makes tasteful choices of good notes, played lyrically and melodically. His simple solution to the problem of the bass' position pays off big dividends to the listener. It's thrilling to hear his fuzzy lead voice on tunes like Beltsandedman and Puked to High Heaven.
One criticism that some folks level at Watt is a disdain for his singing voice. As for me, seeing as that I love the recorded voice of singers like Dave Thomas or Don Van Vliet, I have no qualms about it. C'mon folks, it's Rock for God's sake. Mike's lyrics are always great, too, full of Pedro vernacular and common sense wisdom. It's really populist in a way that many phonies in the music biz aspire to but, for whatever reasons or limitations, can never attain.
Along side of Mr. Watt's bass leadership, Pete Mazich's organ playing carries the tunes on Middle Stand. It's really fun to listen his driving, driven playing. He gets all kinds of great sounds from it. At times it's reminiscent of great 1960's players such as Pigpen; at others it has a smoother, 1970's sound which harks back to groups like Steppenwolf and Bloodrock. There obviously ain't a lot of folks adding organ to the post Punk musical landscape, and as such it's really refreshing to hear Mazich's sound instead of the standard six string guitar. Electric organs produce such a wonderfully colorful sound, and paired with Watt's treble-soaked bass tones, the organ voice on this record just explodes in the ears. Let's hear it for Post Punk organ trios!
Drummer Jerry Trebotic gives a killer performance. He rarely relies on stock rhythms, instead playing imaginative patterns, a kind of Jazz/Rock fusion style that gives propulsion and weight to the tunes. The closest comparison player I can think of would be G. Calvin Weston with Blood Ulmer's groups, but Trebotic puts his own stamp on the style by adding a bit more space between the notes along with a bit more of a relaxed touch. He sounds as if he divides his parts along a kind of linear "cymbals vs. drums" approach, often punctuating tom tom heavy patterns with splashy cymbal accents. It's exemplary trio drumming, as yet another outstanding drummer emerges from the SST/South Bay continuum.
As a group, Mike Watt and the Secondmen sound tight and well rehearsed. The organ trio nature of the group provides for a lot of space, and they fill it nicely; each member by turns steps up and plays support, all the while sounding mindful of the other two. I can attest to their high powered ass kicking live show: even at the pretentious Fillmore they managed keep things human-scaled and full of immediate, real physical power.
Sound wise, the Secondman's Middle Sound is mixed with clarity and precision. The spectrum sounds pretty evenly divided between the three voices. No one is buried in the mix, and it's obvious that great care was taken as far as mic'ing and tonal capture were concerned. It's mixed and mastered smooth, allowing for both high level cranking and lower level appreciation. That's some fine engineering there, boys.
The Secondman's Middle Stand is a great record that has held up tremendously well since it's release. I guess Watt has been sidelined somewhat from the group as he fills in for Dave Alexander with the Stooges, but I look forward to the day when he gets The Secondmen out of Pedro and either on the road or into the recording studio. Anyone know whether or not he's gotten his SG bass back?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Farflung, Numinous Eye, Beaks Plinth-Hemlock Tavern, SF, 9/20/08

I wore a Kwik Way t-shirt. Scott wore his prized Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. Jason called in sick. Again we braved the strange ways of Polk street in our quest for live Rock kicks.
Up first was Beaks Plinth. This is a one man electronic music project. He used sound from LP's, fed into a laptop and then heavily processed. The resulting sound was not quite the harsh attack of your Hair Police or Wolf Eyes. The sound was a bit more widely spaced, a bit more melodic. A lot of it seemed sourced from recordings of Asian music. Although not dramatic to watch, Beaks Plinth's music was fun to listen to with eyes closed, after a long Saturday afternoon of domestic chores. I give added props for his use of old suitcases to cover the turntable and laptop. Very Eno-esque and stylish.
Following quickly in Beak's wake was Numinous Eye. This is a duo which features Mason Jones on guitar and Mark Shoun on drums. Their set was made up of two long, seemingly improvised jams. Mason is a guitar KILLER, and I enjoyed the hell out of listening to his wide open and heavy Fender Strat playing. It's a really psychedelic sound, filtered through his incredible knowledge of and interface with the best Japanese Psych players. He's getting to be as stunning as Sharrock with his assault. Shoun is a powerhouse of a drummer. His tom tom heavy playing and lightning speed left hand snare technique took advantage of the spaces opened up within a duo setting. He filled them up with a hyper-technical approach, at times playing lead drums to Jones's steady time playing. Another band that may be better appreciated with the eyes closed. Mason sure kept his shut throughout the proceedings.
Lastly, and after a break of ten fucking years Farflung took San Francisco by storm. I've loved this band for a long time. Their Space Rock, so simple and rhythmically driving, has always appealed to me. Yes, they're a lot like Hawkwind, but much as in St. Vitus's case vis a vis Sabbath, I feel that they do it so incredibly well that they get a pass. Farflung did not dissappoint. Pushed along by a powerful new drummer and tight bassist, they blasted out their stoney jams, all three guitars weaving simple riffs, the Moog synth coloring on top. Two thirds of the way through their set, the room started to feel like one big echo chamber, bass tones bouncing off of the walls in a physically bracing way. Tasty! The dudes ended the night by giving every single person who wanted one a cool new T-shirt. I wore mine yesterday. With pride.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Toiling Midgets-Son

It's been my contention for many years that if you want to understand Toiling Midget's music, just stand at the corner of 3rd St. and Harrison St. in San Francisco, face west, and watch the fog roll over Diamond Heights. The off-whites, creams, and pastels of the houses on that large hill reflect back on the gray tones of the fog, making for a shimmery light that seems to move both slowly and with quickness. It's a very odd thing to see. Much like that view, Toiling Midget's music is often a roiling, muted soup, some sounds moving fast, others more slowly, all aspects swirling together hypnotically.
Released by Matador in far off 1992, Son is likely that last Toiling Midgets studio release. What to make of this apparent swan song?
For starters, Son does not feature the bizarre singing and lyrics of Ricky Williams. Mark Eitzel does a pretty good job filling in for him. Mark's tenor crooning is similar to Ricky's, slightly more traditionally musical than the latter's crazed whooping. Ricky's vocals always sound other worldly to me, truly alien and bizarre. In contrast, Eitzel's vocals come across as more world weary, sounding not as if they come not from the incomprehensible mental spaces inhabited by Williams, but from a more profane perspective. Still, his voice fits with the music, and doesn't detract from the overall sound. As with the vocal timbres, the lyrics differ from the perspectives of their origins. Eitzel's lyrics are much more objective than Ricky's subjective inner landscape portraits, describing characters and relationships from a distance that feels bitter and cold. There is a darkness to his concerns that sits right with the moody sound the Midgets conjure up.
Paul Hood and Craig Gray are just about the best guitar tandem ever. So often, bands with two guitar players just sound crowded, as both will play identical riffs. Hood and Gray never fall into that trap. Instead, the listener is treated to the sound of Hood's brilliant cyclic melodic riffing; it's always tuneful, yet somehow heavy, and neither aspect ever seems forced or cliched. His playing on Son sounds particularly inspired, the tones well recorded and up front in the mix. Atop Hood's foundation, Gray colors the music with cool feedback, noise, and the occasional unison riff. His sounds are trippy and strange, giving abstraction to the tunes. There are songs on Son in which Gray's playing, if isolated from the mix, could easily go with anything played by Throbbing Gristle or Wolf Eyes. These two are never mentioned in written "Guitar Greats" articles, and that's a damn shame. They executed an amazing concept for a lot of years, one that was truly original, and get no credit for it. On Son their guitars spar, collide, and intertwine, all the time very musically. Renaldo and Moore are the closest comparison I've got, but Gray and Hood do it better, in my opinion.
All great guitar sounds need a complimentary rhythm section, and on Son, Hood and Grays' playing gets that is spades from drummer Tim Mooney and bassist Karl J. Goldring. Here we find honest to God rhythm, in the way bassist and drummer push and pull the tunes, a tight unit, flowing together to form climactic highs and tense lows. They never sound anything less than completely engaged in the songs, and never fall into rote rhythms. Son's songs come across as organic entities, and much of this is due to the way that Mooney and Goldring play off of each other. Mooney's simple kit playing, especially his ride cymbal sound, is exemplary. It's a style without peer, and deserves more appreciation than it gets. Goldring does a great job of holding down the tunes, grounding the guitar voices with it's deep Fender Jazz tones.
Extra shading for some of the songs on Son is provided by strummed acoustic (12 string?) guitar, symphonic strings, and what in one song sounds like operatic tenor singing. These elements, along with the classic Toiling Midgets ethereal guitar voice, make for a great, under appreciated gem of a recording. Son's beauty lies within it's song's clashing and rolling instrumental interplay. Peer deep into it's foggy interior, and find yourself transfixed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Berlin-by David Clay Large

As it goes without saying that the act of writing is extremely difficult, I'll ask the question, "how about reading?" Of the three basic, classic learning criterion, reading seems to be the one that has been shunted to the side. It's my conviction that many people scan, as opposed to read, texts. This is a sad state of affairs, in my opinion. All that said, history texts often warrant no more than scanning. As a person who loves history (easily evidenced by the obsessive collecting bug, the compulsive document search) I find that sad as well. Well written history texts are few and far in between, and when I find one, I heap attention upon it, relishing my time with it in an effort to savor the sublime feelings that arise from it. Berlin is deserving of such hyperbole, in my opinion. David Clay Large's book about the conflict torn and Historically significant city on the Spree River is an extremely compelling one. Large uses fascinating anecdotes and a superbly even handed critical style to give the history of Berlin from the 1870's until 2000. His portrait of Berlin is one that shows a city constantly arising out of Historical flux, rebuilding and reinventing itself, and for the most part finding itself knocked back down again in relatively quick order. The story of Berlin is fascinating and tragic, and Large does a excellent job of telling it. My only minor quibble with his 650 written pages is an anecdote about Johnny Rotten, in which the author accuses him of "[strutting] about in West Berlin, decked out in black leather and swastika tattoos." Rock-n-Roll to David, get your facts straight. Even though Punk was a Pop phenomenon, I think it's safe to say that it too is deserving of historically accurate treatment.
Other than that, this book is an amazing one. Highly enjoyable and recommended without hesitation. If you pick this one up, please give it more than a perfunctory scan.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Alter-Natives-Hold Your Tongue

The historical record has not been kind to Alter-Natives. I have a Forced Exposure from '87 or so in which Coley pans them. Dave Lang consigned them to SST's mistake bin in his great '98 Perfect Sound Forever article on said label. My beloved Carducci only mentions them in passing during the Riff section of Rock and the Pop Narcotic. Hell, I have a pal who lives in Richmond, VA, their home town, who has suggested to me that the group themselves have disowned a lot of their stuff. As for me, I saw them two or three times live, and was always blown away by their wild combination on precision and abandon. They're a band from that era that I find myself coming back to repeatedly. Could this just be bad taste on my part? Let's put the headphones on and dig in to Hold Your Tongue and find out.
Alter-Natives sound like a group that practiced a lot. Many of the pieces on Hold Your Tongue feature the kind of changes that arise from heavy, frequent jamming. That's not to say that there are not tunes. Most of the songs on this recording clock in at about two minutes, and despite having tons of changes, they do have working melodic and rhythmic parts.
The lead voices of Greg Ottinger on guitar and Eric Ungar on flute and saxophone provide plenty of melodic interest. Ungar's playing is not particularly virtuoso, but he gets raw tones from his saxes, sometimes sounding Pacific Northwest Garage, at other times South Bay Surf, and still others almost Gnawa. His flute tones are sweet and controlled, Rock in orientation, as he never ventures too far out into solo realms and sticks mainly to melodic playing. Perhaps his music loses points with the critics for his inclusion of the flute? It's never been a particularly popular Rock instrumental choice, that's for sure. Ottinger's guitar playing is a mixture of Prog control, SST grime, and post Fusion Harmelodics. He seems to really like spiky harmonics, which come into play throughout his rhythm section playing. When he takes the lead, his sound becomes a lot more SST-ish; he flips out in a manner that can be described as controlled aggro, playing Pharoah Saunders to Ginn's John Coltrane.
The rhythm section of Chris Bopst on bass and Jim Thomson on drums rages underneath the horns and guitar. Bopst seems to favor the higher end of the bass register, playing a fast, melodic Fusion style. On many songs it's more another melodic element than an anchor. His growling, funky sound goes to places inhabited by the likes of Watt and Dukowski. He's not stayin' in the background, that' for sure. Thomson's kit playing is a hyper, rolling bash. He syncopates wildly throughout each and every song, but has the good sense to stick tight with the band during the more subdued parts. However, when he goes for it, he REALLY goes for it, featuring a sound that flies by the seat of it's pants, a caffeinated Tony Williams, lashing out and spinning ideas with haste. Sometimes it works against him, as his beats seem to be a bit behind the rest of the band, but you won't hear me complain about that. Please also let me mention his ride and hi-hat cymbal playing, in which he has such a sweet touch.
Alter-Natives' brand of Harmelodic Hardcore obviously isn't going to please too many people. The fast, dense attack on Hold Your Tongue is a great example of musicians' music, as the band careens through idea after idea, barely stopping to catch their breath, let alone leaving room for the listener. Obviously someone at SST was listening, and liked what they heard (check out Mojack's latest CD and the last SWA recording for evidence of that.) I find a lot of pleasure in their murky fusion, too. If only the naysayers could have seen them as they pounded through their version of Why Don't We Do It in the Road (I'm not joking), maybe their accounts would have been different.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Anals-Commando of Love/Wake Up, You're Dead 7"

Early in this decade, there was what appeared to be a move towards Screamers influenced synthesizer Punk. The great SynthPunk website and the amazing Tomata Du Plenty interviews in the Big Takeover seemed to presage cool, driving, hard synth music that would show up any day. Instead, crappy Industry B.S. like Hot Hot Heat and the Electroclash movement (hey lay-dees!, pfffttt) were served up. As far as I could tell from my vantage point, what was a neat possibility had turned into a bust, another reason to despise music scenes in general and the Indie sector of the Industry in particular.
Thankfully, Metz, France has served up an antidote to said blathering in the form of the Anals. A duo comprised of B. Marietta, who plays guitar and drums, and E. Satti, on synth and vocals, the Anals have released a great 7" of grating SynthPunk that fulfills the promise, albeit late in the decade, that I glimpsed during that rapidly fading time.
Commando of Love is a bizarre lyric about an S.S. member who loves a Jewish woman during WWII. VERY uncomfortable subject matter, obviously. It makes me squirm, anyway. The music is very hot tom tom driven Slow Punk (thanks, Row), with harsh, treble-y synth providing the melodic action. It reminds me a lot of Gear and Roesslers' best distorted blasts, and Marietta's drumming is equal to that of K.K. Barrett's blunt force pounding.
Wake Up, You're Dead features a kind of spiteful haiku lyric. The tune is another slow one, with repetitive drumming and machine-like synth, glazed over with some of the best feedback squalling this side of Michael Belfer's immortal playing on Tuxedomoon's No Tears.
It's really delicious to hear harsh electronic sounds coupled with driving beats, and the ones here are real ear candy, aural junk food of the best sort.
With this 7", the Anals have delivered a great slice of heavy SynthPunk. It's great to hear someone do it with the attitude and style that was promised in the past, yet only partially delivered. I look forward to full length releases from this cool, disturbing band.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Maureen Tucker-Life in Exile After Abdication

I've always hated the term "indie". It's never meant anything close to it's epistemological origin for me. In my opinion, indie describes a hairstyle or maybe someone's choice of t-shirt for a social occasion. You may ask, "but Disaster Amnesiac, what the hell does this have to do with a recording by Moe Tucker?" It's a good question. Let me see if I can clarify, by way of blog riffing to Life in Exile After Abdication.
Here we find a record that features the A List of pre and post Punk creators. Lou Reed, Jad Fair, Sonic Youth, and Daniel Johnston, are all here, not to mention the great Maureen herself. It's a cast that screams out "indie!" This time, I don't use the term for fashion, but for INDEPENDENCE. As in liberated thought. As in creative use of musical instruments with transcendence as a goal. As I type these words, the free-form freakbeat of Chase washes into my ears, coloring my mind and giving me the best kind of vertigo. Tucker's sparse pow-wow drum pounding and swimming cymbal washes. Moore and Renaldos' respective ghost feedback and chiming. This was music created in the spirit of INDEPENDENCE.
Listen to Moe's insights into the realities of working adulthood on Spam Again or Work. These lyrics are not statements about style. No. These are words that strive to express the blues that spring from having to face up to the hardscrabble reality that faces the vast majority of people. Despite all the aggravation, my heroine Moe lifts her voice and expresses the frustration with simple language and lyrical style. You know, Rock-n-Roll! Rock-n-Roll as a medium not just for the Beautiful People, but for all people. Liberated thought. INDEPENDENCE.
Dig the real Human feeling, the tenderness of Andy and Pale Blue Eyes (the best version of that song ever), or Daniel Johnston's Do it Right. Appreciate the unschooled and wonderful strumming of Jad Fair on Bo Diddly. Feel the liberation that comes when people really expose themselves in honest and heartfelt ways. Try not to shed a tear of joy. Do try to shed your pretensions. It's the Rock-n-Roll thing to do. "Indie" don't mean shit. Not to us exiles.